By Angela Haggerty
The Syrian government has accused the US of using “fabricated information” amid accusations that forces loyal to President Assad have used chemical agent sarin on a “small scale” in the war torn country, causing up to 150 deaths.
The US has indicated it will provide military aid to Syrian rebels following a statement from the White House on Thursday which said the government had “high confidence” in American intelligence assessments that chemical weapons had been used.
The statement went on to say that President Obama had been clear that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the US and said the government would “increase the scope and scale of assistance” provided to forces opposed to the Assad regime. However, no comment was made on an allegation from former war crimes prosecutor and UN human rights investigator, Carla del Ponte, last month that witness testimonies indicated Syrian rebels had themselves used chemical weapons.
Ms del Ponte told Swiss radio in early May: “According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas.
“We still have to deepen our investigation, verify and confirm through new witness testimony, but according to what we have established so far, it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin gas.”
The UN has not yet released conclusions on the matter and it is unclear whether proof of chemical weapons use by Syrian rebels would deter the US from providing further assistance.
UN secretary Ban Ki-moon confirmed receipt of a letter from the US on Syrian chemical weapons use but said further investigation was needed and military aid was not a solution.
“The military path points directly towards the further disintegration of the country, destabilisation of the region and inflammation of religious and communal tensions,” he said. “That is why I continue to emphasise the need for an investigation on the ground in Syria that can collect its own samples and establish the facts. Our goal remains a fully independent and impartial inquiry.”
The Syrian foreign ministry said in its statement on Friday that the US was using “cheap tactics” to arm rebel fighters as reports emerged of increased fighting in Syrian city Aleppo.
The news further heightened international concern, with Russia dismissing the US claims as “unconvincing”. Opposing diplomatic rhetoric from the US and Russia has led some observers to make Cold War comparisons, while Republican Senator John McCain said he feared a “failure of American leadership” could result in wider conflict in the region and beyond.
Russian authorities announced support to President Assad last month in the form of an S-300 missile defence system to deter “hot heads”, although Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy advisor, Yuri Ushakov, confirmed on Friday that it had not yet been delivered to Syria and offered no time frame for the completion of the sale, despite the news from the US.
“We are not competing [with the US] on Syria,” he said. “On the contrary, we are seeking a constructive solution to this issue which is vital for the situation in the region and the world.”
The announcement from Russia last month prompted Israel, which is in a particularly insecure political position, to raise concerns. Government changes in Syria could have a significant impact on Israeli security in the region.
Iranian-backed Lebanese group – and fierce enemy of Israel – Hezbollah is fighting in the region to support President Bashar al-Assad. However, should the Assad regime fall, any new administration could have huge implications for Israel and the wider region.
The UN has estimated at least 93,000 people have been killed and more than 1.5 million people displaced as a result of the two-year conflict, which shows no signs of resolution. US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have led efforts to stage a peace conference to involve the international community on a diplomatic effort to bring an end to the bloodshed, however, disagreements between the US and Russia over who should attend has presented problems.